Women power: Hazy picture

As the world celebrated International Women’s Day yesterday, some great news emerged out of India. A report published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said the proportion of girls undergoing child marriage in India has come down sharply over the past decade. South Asia has witnessed the largest decline in child marriages worldwide in the past 10 years, as a girl’s risk of marrying before her 18th birthday has dropped by more than a third, from nearly 50 per cent to 30 per cent, in large part due to progress in India. It is true that even now, 27 per cent of girls in India get married before they turn 18, but that is a sharp decline from 47 per cent a decade ago.

The second good news came via the latest “Monster Salary Index” (MSI), released on March 7. The gender pay gap in India has narrowed by about five percentage points in 2017 from 24.8 per cent in 2016.

Both are fantastic news and offer a ray of hope. But if you dig deeper, the picture gets blurred. For example, the MSI report later adds that for talent with experience, the gap has widened and is at its highest at 25 per cent for those with 11 years or more of experience. For example, men with zero-two years of experience earned 7.8 per cent higher median wages than women; men with six to ten years of experience earned 15.3 per cent more; while men with 11 and more years of experience earned 25 per cent more. Due to the gender wage gap, it can make more sense for the men in the household to take up paid employment outside, leading the woman to stay at home to do household work.

And Unicef’s good news on lower proportion of child marriages fades quite a bit when one sees the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2017”. It places India in 108th place out of 144 countries, slipping from 87th in 2016. India now has the second-lowest rate of female labour-force participation in South Asia after Pakistan. Instead of opportunities being created by the growing economy, women’s employment in India is going into reverse; in 2017, female labour force participation (15+) reached 27 per cent (2017) dropping from 35 per cent over the last two decades.

National Sample Survey (NSS) data for India also shows that labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 (including primary and subsidiary status) have stagnated at about 26-28 per cent in urban areas, and fallen substantially from 57 per cent to 44 per cent in rural areas, between 1987 and 2011. Different age groups or different surveys essentially tell the same story, even though the levels differ slightly. 

Add to this, the latest Economic Survey that discusses the concept of ‘son meta-preference’ among Indian parents, who go out of their way to keep producing children till a desired number of sons is attained. According to the Survey, India has as many as 21 million “unwanted” girls in the age group of 0-25 years because their parents kept producing children, or undesired daughters, in the hope of a male child. Though the Survey said that over the last decade and a half, India has improved on 14 out of 17 indicators that measure women’s empowerment, the fact is that socio-cultural norms that favour boys over girls, patriarchal values that inhibit women’s mobility, and gender stereotypes that prevent women from joining the labour market all reinforce gender discrepancies in the country.

This is a problem even at senior positions in corporate India. Companies would never acknowledge this, but the fact is that many of them consider the cost of employing women in management greater than the cost of employing men. This is primarily due to the belief that women will opt out midway to fulfil their family responsibilities, so there is limited scope to get returns on the investments made in their training. On top of that, the company has to bear the replacement hiring costs and so on.

That’s the reason (companies call it the “mommy-track”) why even many high-achieving women who want to return in full force once their maternity leave expires, often find the road back far more treacherous than they had anticipated as positions disappear and salaries plummet.

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